Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Googly-eyed breakfast by Angie Naron

Over the last few decades, claims have grown up around breakfast — notably that people who eat “a good breakfast” have all kinds of good outcomes, like easier weight control and better metabolic function. There isn’t a lot of great science on this, because studies are notoriously bad at food tracking, but there’s also no great evidence that breakfast has magical qualities by itself. Large observational studies have shown a benefit when breakfast was a regular feature of a person’s day, but people who are careful to have “a good breakfast” may do a lot of other things that keep them in good health, too. Short-term studies have not shown smoking-gun issues from skipping it.

Eating breakfast can make good choices easier for some people, though.

Breakfast Can Help You Make Good Nutrition Choices If…

— You just like having a meal in the morning, large or small — especially if missing it on hectic days leaves you feeling bad or frustrated. Finding a way to protect that meal can make the rest of your day go better.

— You exercise in the morning. Whether you eat before or after, or have a small snack before and more food after (the timing is personal), moving more means eating more, and people often feel more comfortable when they eat at a time close to their workout.

— You work in an environment with a lot of empty-calorie options hanging around, whether it’s nearby coffee shops or donuts or vending machines in the break room. We often eat simply because food is present. Already having some food in you (especially satiating, filling protein and fiber) or packing a nutritious snack can help you resist “because it’s there” eating.

— You try to skip breakfast to “save calories” but end up feel deprived and hungry. If skipping breakfast leaves you grazing all morning, you might feel more alert and happier with a nutritious snack first thing.

– You have medical issues. If you have diabetes, of course, a dietitian can help you choose foods and meal times as part of your treatment. Other medical conditions can also have food and timing implications — work with your healthcare team if you’re under regular care.

The Traditional Morning Breakfast Doesn’t Matter If…

— You feel fine and ready to get going on your day once you roll out of bed.

— You’ve comfortably adopted a “feeding window” approach to eating that has you “break your fast” at a different time of day. (People may lecture you about this. Tell them, “I do have breakfast — just later.”)

— You may actually feel worse when you eat right after waking. You may be fine with “nontraditional” breakfast foods, starting with a very small snack, or just eating after you’ve gotten a start on the day. It’s worth keeping an eye out for health or stress issues that may be involved, but if that coast is clear, it’s down to what works for you.

— You think breakfast means only cereal, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and pastries. There’s no reason to limit those foods to a specific time of day, if you like them, nor any reason to privilege them as first foods of the day. A turkey sandwich is also a good breakfast, and diners serve “breakfast all day” for a (delicious) reason!

It’s Your Overall Pattern That Matters Most

The breakfast issue is similar to the claim that “small meals boost the metabolism.” Some people feel better with lots of small meals — or when they eat breakfast. Some people do fine — good energy level, able to do the activities they care about, able to stick with a nutritious eating pattern — with one or a few big meals, with or without breakfast. (Oh, and if you study someone making an abrupt change in pattern, they may get outsize results.) Humans are highly adaptable, and the major factors driving weight are simply how much you eat and move. So keep an eye out for the ways that make it easiest for you to make the choices you want to make.

Image: Angie Naron created this wonderful breakfast as part of a challenge issued by Amy Sedaris. You can see other entries at the Flickr group.

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